Steve Gebhardt’s 1993 documentary, which has just received its DVD premiere, pays tribute to the man who is commonly known as the Father of Bluegrass Music. Indeed, Bill Monroe took that title very, very seriously – I saw him in concert in Nashville in 1993 and he proudly informed his audience: “I am the Father of Bluegrass Music…and don’t you forget it!”
Well, it is hard to forget Monroe’s distinctive mandolin playing and a unique singing voice that peerlessly mixed the traditions of Appalachian folk and hillbilly-flavored country music. The film traces Monroe’s life from the rural isolation of dirt-poor Kentucky to the heady stardom of the Grand Ol’ Opry. Along the way, Monroe earned thousands of fans and more than a little ill will (the film significantly plays down the long-running feud between Monroe and former band members Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, claiming the duo were really at fault for the fight).
There’s plenty of talk throughout the film, with a taciturn Monroe offering measured recollections while the likes of Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, Emmylou Harris and (incongruously) Jerry Garcia heap bushels of praise. And that is all fine – the praise is deserved. But the film truly soars with concert footage and vintage phonograph recordings of Monroe steaming through his musical canon. For all of its flaws, the documentary soars once Monroe gets out the mandolin and finds the microphone. Bluegrass fans, get ready to pounce!